Three of Five: More “Easy” Ways for Students to Improve Their Writing

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The following is the third in a series of five assignments I give early in my freshman composition classes to help students find relatively easy ways to revise their papers. I find that it helps students, especially many community college students who may not have done a great deal of writing in high school. The “Five Easy Ways” offer students five almost grammar-free issues to look for in their papers. I have found that when students locate these issues and re-write the sentences containing them, then their writing improves, sometimes just a little, but enough for them to begin to better understand the process of revision and editing.

Here is the assignment as given to my online freshman composition students:

Five Easy Ways to Improve Your Writing–Part Three–Eliminating Unnecessary Words and Phrases–

Often people make the mistake of writing the way they speak, which often times causes unnecessary wordiness. Other times writers “throw in” extra words and phrases, perhaps because they think their sentences need to be longer to “sound” more academic when in reality, concise writing has been proved more effective time and time again.

To practice eliminating unnecessary wordiness, complete the following activity:

  • Write an illustration paragraph with the following topic sentence (filling in the blanks, of course): A good ______________ is _____________________, _______________________ and ________________________.
  • Example of an appropriate topic sentence: A good restaurant is clean, with a nice cozy ambiance, has a welcoming staff that treats all guests as special patrons, and of course, serves delicious food with a variety of healthy options, plus a few naughty choices just for fun.
  • Support the topic sentence with at least one specific example of each of the three characteristics (five to eight sentences).
  • Examples of the kind of specific detail that I’m looking for: Never Blue, one of my favorite restaurants in downtown Hendersonville, has a variety of healthy choices on its menu, including homemade hummus and house-cured salmon, but some naughty choices also, like the incredible “Devils on Horseback” (goat cheese-stuffed dates) and the sinful phyllo-wrapped chocolate confection simply called “The Brownie.”
  • Write a final supporting example or a concluding sentence for a paragraph that is 7 to 10 sentences long–no more, no less.
  • Revise the rough draft. Here’s a guide
      • Re-write any clauses that begin with “There” or “It”
      • Eliminate any use of first or second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, you, yours, etc)–Re-write, if needed

    Eliminate any use of the following words or phrases–Re-place these words and phrases or re-write, if needed.

      • very
      • really
      • a lot
      • lots
      • due to the fact that
      • extremely
      • that said
      • Well (as a filler word, okay to use it as an adverb)
      • as a matter of fact
      • totally
      • actually
      • See other deadwood words and phrases to avoid by clicking on this link: http://grammar.ccc.commnet.edu/grammar/plague.htm
  • Submit the rough draft and the revision ON THE SAME DOCUMENT and submit. Be sure to label the rough draft and the final draft, so I know which one to grade.
  • Remember, I want to see a great deal of descriptive, specific examples, not just generic supporting points.

 

I like giving these shorter paragraph assignments early on in first-semester freshman English because I can give extensive feedback more easily and students get some concrete ways to revise their papers early on.

If you have any suggestions for ways that students who are not used to writing academically can learn to revise and edit their papers more easily, please share!

 

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I also would love it if you would consider submitting to my literary journal designed for writing teachers, Teach. Write. My fourth edition is slated for publication on April 1, 2019. Deadline for submissions is March 1, 2019. See the submission guidelines for more information. Previous editions are free online.

 

 

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The Second of Five “Easy Ways” for Students to Improve Their Writing

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It’s been a busy time for me, and I haven’t had much time to work on the blog, but I had a good response from my first posting about five easy ways for students to improve their writing, so I didn’t want any more time to pass before the next installment.

The first of the five easy ways was to eliminate the use of first and second-person pronouns in academic writing. I can hear someone saying right now, “Just like an English teacher, not following her on rules,” but I tell my students that there is a time and place for using the first and second person; however, with so many bad writing habits around, eliminating them altogether for a time often helps people to control their use. The time, I tell them, lowering my reading glasses to peer at them, is in my classroom.

The same is true for the next of the five easy ways: Avoid beginning sentences or clauses with “There” and “It.” When community college students, many of whom are unfamiliar with the process of revision, are encouraged to find words and phrases that should be eliminated or avoided, what tends to happen is that they will often need, or even want, to change much more about the sentence than just the one word. Sometimes they make their overall sentence structure much stronger and clearer by recognizing one or two things that need to be avoided.

Therefore, I ask students to avoid beginning sentences with “There or “It” rather than eliminate them, but elimination is best. In the paragraph assignment described below, I ask students to eliminate the words “there” and “it.” But I begin with a curious request: I ask them to write a paragraph where every single sentence or clause begins with “there” and “it.”  What?

Take a look!

For the next paragraph assignment, I want each student to write a paragraph on one of the following subjects, but here is the trick–every sentence or major clause should begin with either “There” or “It”–that’s right–every sentence or major clause. Doing this should make sense when we do the next assignment

Begin with a topic sentence that contains the main idea, and write five to eight sentences that support that main idea and then write a concluding sentence.  Be sure to use specific sensory language to create a dominant impression as explained in the text and on the video.

In your paragraph describe one of the following

The lake at BRCC

The Patton Parking Lot

A classroom at BRCC or some other room

The Patton Building

The General Studies Building

Since you are online students, you may not be familiar with these places, so choose a room, building or other feature of any school that you attend, your home or the city or town you live in. It should be somewhere near Blue Ridge, though.

Example:

General Studies 115

     It is a plain room that, in the end, is quite remarkable. There are four white cement block walls. There is one blank wall, one wall with a bulletin board and two walls with white boards.  There is a bulletin board in the back that has been there for over five years, its blue background fading. It once had bright red trim, now pepto-bismol pink. It has old flyers from long ago events tacked here and there. There are tables and hard plastic chairs, a few broken ones. There is no sound except the hum of the ancient data projector and the rattle of the ceiling vents. It is a typical old classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus. It is without life, until the first student, back pack slung over his shoulder, wanders in and takes his seat.

After the students have turned in that paragraph, I assign the following: 

You probably have guessed what I want you to do. I hope so, anyway.

I want you to take the paragraph you wrote for Assignment 2.2 and eliminate all uses of “there” and “it.” Might be harder than you think, but the exercise will hopefully make you more aware of how much we overuse these two words.

NOTE:  Don’t forget your first lesson–No first or second person pronouns either. 

Use my rewrite as an example (I begin with the original paragraph, so you can see the changes that I made). Notice that I took out words, added words and totally rewrote some sentences to better conform to good descriptive writing techniques. You should do the same.

Original Paragraph: 

General Studies 115

     It is a plain room that, in the end, is quite remarkable. There are four white cement block walls. There is one blank wall, one wall with a bulletin board and two walls with white boards.  There is a bulletin board in the back that has been there for over five years, its blue background fading. It once had bright red trim, now pepto-bismol pink. It has old flyers from long ago events tacked here and there. There are tables and hard plastic chairs, a few broken ones. There is no sound except the hum of the ancient data projector and the rattle of the ceiling vents. It is a typical old classroom in one of the oldest buildings on campus. It is without life, until the first student, back pack slung over his shoulder, wanders in and takes his seat.

Revised Paragraph

Student Name

Katie Winkler, Instructor

ENG 111.202

13 January 2018

The Old Classroom

     The plainest of rooms in one of the oldest buildings on campus is, in the end, quite remarkable. Standing in the front, listening to the ancient data projector and ceiling vents hum and rattle, the instructor, a 23-year veteran, faces a bulletin board, mostly blank, with just a few outdated event flyers tacked on its faded blue background, its once bright red trim now Pepto-Bismol pink. Brown tables and hard plastic chairs in conforming rows stand silent, or languish in the corner–broken and of little use. Then, the room, and all its occupants, like old, loyal soldiers, come to attention when the first student, backpack slung over his shoulder, wanders into the room.

Note: The two bold words (its) are being used as possessive pronouns in this paragraph and are therefore allowed. The contraction “It’s” would not be allowed. 

I have only used this assignment for the past two or three semesters, but I have had excellent results. Do students continue to have issues with overusing “There” and “It”? Of course, but, after this lesson, they have two easy things to look for when tackling the required revisions of rough drafts.

The third easy way will be coming your way soon!!!

NOTE: I neglected to mention in the last post that I am indebted to the classic little book on composition The Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White for the development of my Five Easy Ways series of lessons. One of the greatest, and most accessible, books on writing, The Elements of Style, practices what it preaches–be concise and clear, my dear.

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Do you teach English composition or have you had a positive writing experience with a gifted composition instructor? If so, please consider submitting a short story, poem, or essay to Teach. Write.: A Writing Teachers’ Literary Journal. Submissions are now being accepted for the Spring/Summer 2019 issue and will close on March 1, 2019. Click  here for submission guidelines.

 

 

Thinking about Pittsburgh

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davidpwhalen — morguefile.com

In light of recent events, I have been thinking a lot about Pittsburgh. This weekend at the North Carolina Writers’ Network’s fall conference in Charlotte, I was inspired to write the following after a great panel on the importance of place in writing:

 

City Chicken

When I moved to Beaver, PA, in 1983, I was 23, just graduated from Oral Roberts University, Lord help me, and had come to work at a small Christian school outside of Pittsburgh. I grew up an army brat, who moved from place to place north, south, east, west, yet always carried the South with me as I traveled with my loud, boisterous, loving Alabama family.

Part of my heritage is a powerful streak of non-conformity, independent even from the strong political, religious, and social mores of southern society. So when I was still jobless a couple of weeks before graduation and was invited to apply for a job teaching English and German at Rhema Christian School in Aliquippa, PA, a major steel town outside of Pittsburgh, I didn’t hesitate. It was a grand adventure, moving to a brand new place to explore and new people to meet.

The first thing that struck me when I arrived that June day and was picked up at the Pittsburgh airport was how dang humid and hot it was. Despite that similarity with my home state, on the way to the school from the airport, I knew I wasn’t in AL anymore. The rolling hills were larger than those of the Alabama plains. Instead of one story brick or wooden houses, spacious lawns and pecatrees, we passed two story homes huddled close together in the valley and scattered over the hills, big red barns decorated with brightly colored quilt patterns I know now are PA Dutch Hex signs, long rambling steel mills belching smoke, and the bridges! Silver train bridges beside the huge arches of yellow ones crowded with cars and trucks, moving in and out of small bedroom

Pittsburgh’s bridges

Bandini at morguefile.com

communities and Mill villages.

 

On the way to the school after leaving the interstate, we passed a Perkins Restaurant, a chain, I was told, much like, but not at all like, Shoney’s in the South. On the marquee I read that the week’s special was City Chicken—city chicken? I thought it was weird but let it go as my nerves took over in anticipation of my first teaching job interview. 

I got the job and moved two months later. Almost my whole family helped me move. We had fun exploring Pittsburgh—the drive through the Fort Pitt tunnel.

Point state park in pittsburgh

Bandini —morguefile.com

opening up to its impressive view of the city during the beginning of its renaissance, lunch at an Italian place, claiming the best pizza in The Burgh, beautiful Point State Park, right where two rivers came together to form the mighty Ohio. Then, hugs, kisses, tears, and they were gone, back to Al together. I was left alone with a map and my dad’s advice on the best route back to my new home.  

After crossing four or five bridges and traveling down numerous wrong roads, I finally found the right one and headed to Beaver. It was getting late, I was already homesick, frustrated that I had lost my way, and therefore powerfully hungry, when I saw a marquee in front of yet another Perkins restaurant, or maybe it was Eat ‘n Park, anyway, the special, according to the sign, was city chicken.

close up photography of orange rooster on brown wooden bench

Photo by Yves Chaput on Pexels.com

I took the bait, parked, was led to a booth, and without thinking or asking or reading the menu, ordered the special from my young, perky, big-haired server.

She wrinkled her nose. “Did you say City Chicken?” Not the first time that day someone had trouble with my accent

“Yes, Ma’am.” I said, smiling.

She gave me a curious look but said nothing. A few minutes later she placed before me a huge plate of meat on a big pile of fluffy white rice with a side order of broccoli. I took a whiff and was suddenly transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen as she prepared fried chicken and rice for a Wednesday night church supper before prayer meeting.

My mouth watering, I took a bite. Oh, my, it wasn’t  chicken at all. City chicken, turns out, is big fat juicy, deep fried pieces of pork tenderloin on a frickin’ stick. It was not like anything I had ever tasted before. But, man, I thought, feeling I had not, after all, made the biggest mistake in my life, it sure was tasty.

 

 

Five Easy Ways

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The first semester as a graduate assistant working on my Masters in English Education at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, I was required to take a course in teaching methods. Because I already had five years of teaching experience, two years in a private school in Pennsylvania and three years in Rome, Georgia, teaching English and German, I was arrogant enough to think I didn’t need to take the course and was somewhat annoyed that I had to do so.

However, during the course of the semester, I found out how much my professor, Dr. Gayle Miller, had to teach me. One of the best activities Dr. Miller had us complete was teaching to the class. Each one of us had to pick something we were interested in and instruct the class. My friend, who later became a colleague at the school where I teach now, taught a lesson on writing apprehension, offering suggestions I still use today. Another interesting topic was finding a word in an English/Chinese dictionary–surprisingly difficult.

Even the few times Dr. Miller was not there, she always had an interesting person to come in and lecture. It was a long time ago, and I can’t remember her name, but one speaker who came to Dr. Miller’s class made a lasting impact on my teaching by introducing the class to five easy ways that can help students improve their writing.

Although I have modified the list somewhat over the years, I still introduce my freshman composition students to The Five Easy Ways, which I have found especially useful when teaching community college students who may not have been strong writers in high school. The beauty of the The Five Easy Ways is students can improve their writing without knowing much grammar.

Don’t get me wrong! I love grammar, but I have a great deal to accomplish in a short time in freshman English, so I have found that The Five Easy Ways jumpstarts revision among students who may have never truly revised a paper. They just don’t know how!

So here are The Five Easy Ways in their latest iteration:

  1. Avoid the use of first and second person pronouns.
  2. Avoid beginning sentences with There and It.
  3. Eliminate overused expressions and vague modifiers, such as like a lot, lots, very, really, good, bad, awesome, etc.
  4. Avoid over-coordination.
  5. Read backwards and aloud.

Okay, maybe I should not have said they were easy. These five ways may make finding sentences that need revision easier, but fixing them is not always easy.

Okay, okay, there is a little grammar here, too. I usually must explain what first and second person pronouns are and also over-coordination, but most students know the grammar; they just don’t know that they know it. After a few minutes of review, the majority of students begin to remember.

Today, let’s look more closely at the first Easy Way. Students are so used to writing about themselves they find it difficult to think from any other perspective, something we want college English students to do; therefore, I don’t allow first person at all in finished drafts. Also, students learn that stating one’s opinion does not require the phrases I think, I believe, or I feel to precede them. Furthermore, eliminating second person forces students to think more about broadening their audience and often leads them to develop a more mature voice. They can also learn to avoid pronoun errors caused by using the second person incorrectly.

Example: After reading my paper, you can see that it is for the best if you start recycling. 

Oh, me. So many things to talk about–where to begin?  Start with eliminating the first and second person pronouns.

Revised: After reading the paper, most people can see that it is for the best if everyone starts recycling.

Still some things to work on, but for a freshman who doesn’t even know where to begin revising, the sentence is already improved by making just a few simple changes.

Okay, okay, okay. Perhaps you, gentle reader, are thinking how I am forsaking The Five Easy Ways even while explaining them, but I am much more conscious of overusing the first person or inappropriately using the second person. Now, I am consciously looking for this overuse when revising. Looking at the draft of this blog, for example, I noticed the overuse of first person pronouns and have worked to eliminate some pronouns while reconsidering others.

I have incorporated The Five Easy Ways into freshman English classes, which now begin with an assignment that is a personal narrative written in third person.  After completing this assignment, students seem to grasp how avoiding first and second person can strengthen their overall sentence structure.

Here is the assignment and an example:

One of the easiest ways to make writing sound more academic is to eliminate first and second person pronouns (I, me, my, mine, we, us, our, ours, your, your). Although finding the instances of first and second person is a snap, rewriting sentences to get rid of these pronouns can be time-consuming at first. The good thing is once writers begin using third person only, they soon become used to it and will write in third-person more often, making revision easier and easier.

Therefore, in this exercise students will write a one paragraph (five to ten sentences long) narrative. The trick is to write the paragraph totally in third person .  Here are some suggestions for the paragraph, but students are not limited to these topics:

a car accident

                      an event during a family vacation

learning to drive or learning to do something else

winning or losing a game

failing or succeeding at school or work

the first day of elementary school, high school or college

any other topic as long as it is a personal narrative

IMPORTANT NOTE: The paragraph should begin with a topic sentence and be no shorter than five sentences and no longer than ten well-developed sentences. Telling a story in such a short time is difficult so narrow the paragraph down to the climax of the narrative. 

Take a look at the following example to get an idea of what I’m looking for:

Example:

Katie and a Horse Named Butterball

Katie only rode him once, but she will never forget riding Butterball through the Grand Tetons. She was nine and a half, on a trip back from California to Alabama with her parents and siblings when the family stopped at a dude ranch in Wyoming for two nights. The owners found out that Katie and her sister loved horses, so they decided to take the family on a trail ride. Everyone was given a horse that seemed to suit each one, except Katie, small and scared, who was put up on Butterball–the biggest, fattest golden palomino gelding anyone ever saw! Katie’s little legs stuck straight out across the horse’s wide back, and at first, she was terrified. However, when she realized that the horse was a gentle giant, she relaxed enough to look down on her older sister and brother, even her parents. That’s when she began to feel much better. As she walked the trails through the glorious mountains in late summer, she saw sights she had never seen before or since–the Grand Tetons early in the morning, a moose cow and her calf drinking by a lake, wild horses led by a buckskin stallion–all while riding high on a horse named Butterball.

This first assignment does not cure students of overusing or inappropriately using first or second person, but it certainly gives them something to consider when they begin the revision process as college students, and for some, knowing where to begin is the start of a whole new way to look at writing.

Next blog post, I will tackle Easy Way #2.

Trapped in a Cell

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A little while ago, I had a worse than usual incident with in-class cell phone usage. It was towards the end of class near the end of a semester when I was so distracted by a student’s texting that I asked him to put the phone away. He put it face down on the table in front of him. Less than a minute later, he was on the phone again. I asked him to put it away again. He put it face down on the table. I asked him to put it out of sight. He put it in his lap. I asked him to totally put it away, and he completely lost it, saying things I knew he would soon regret. (To his credit, he emailed me that evening to apologize.) I asked the student to leave for the day. He left, but reluctantly, and only after saying a few more regrettable things.

I have my own regrets: that I didn’t have a more clear-cut policy in the beginning of the semester, that I have been too loosey-goosey with inappropriate use of technology in my class. So, I have been drafting my new cell phone policy. It’s pretty hard core, at least compared to my previous policy. I know. I know. Some of you will think what a total marshmallow I must be, but like I told one of my teacher friends long ago, “You know what happens when a marshmallow sits on the shelf too long? It gets hard as a rock!”

So here’s the new policy:

Cell Phone Usage: Cell phone usage has become a major problem in my classes, distracting to the students who are texting or surfing, to those around them, and to me, making it harder for me to teach effectively. If I must consistently stop the class to discipline students on cell phones, I waste instructional time and risk embarrassing or angering the cell phone user as well as the rest of the students.

Therefore, I am instituting a stricter policy this year. Once class begins, phones are to be silenced and kept totally out of sight. Any student having a visible cell phone, holding, or using one during class may likely be asked to leave for the day, even if it is the first offense. If I am consistently having to ask any student to leave the class for violation of the cell phone policy, then I may submit a Behavioral Assessment Form to Student Services as described in the student handbook, which could result in further discipline, perhaps even suspension from the class.

What do you think?

Anyone want to share a policy that he or she has found effective?

I would love to hear from you. I have tried so many different things and nothing seems to work.

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It’s not too late to submit to the Fall/Winter 2018 edition of my online literary journal for writing teachers–Teach. Write. Submissions are open until August 1. Look here for submission guidelines.

 

 

No Time to Write

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Busy grading and working on the new edition of Teach. Write. slated for publication on April 1, but been thinking a great deal about optimal number of students in online writing intensive classes. Below is a link to an article by Wayne D’Orio, an award-winning education journalist, writing for Inside Higher Education.

“Online class sizes: one size does not fit all.”

Online class sizes

My favorite comment: “All sources for this story agreed that writing intensive courses demand fewer students.”

BTW—online literature courses are writing intensive if taught correctly.

Just sayin’.

 

The Art of Writing

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Before I was a full-time instructor, over twenty years ago, I presented at my first national conference–the National Conference of Teachers of English. It was in Denver that year, and I paid for the conference myself because I craved professional development, even though I was a lowly adjunct, only teaching three or four large college classes each semester.

In a round table session, I  presented  an exercise that I had created for my developmental English courses called “The Art of Writing.” The students took a reproduction of a famous piece of art (I had many pictures for them to choose from) and told them to brainstorm about what they saw, using a handout I gave them.

One side of the paper was marked “Concrete,” where they wrote what they saw in the picture or what they could imagine that they could experience with their other senses. On the other side of the paper, I wrote “Abstract,” where students wrote words and phrases that represented how the painting made them feel or what memories, or thoughts in general, the painting helped bring to the surface.

After they brainstormed, the would develop some sort of prose writing based on the art and their brainstorming, combining the concrete with the abstract. I used as an example a short piece I wrote that was based on the iconic painting American Gothic by Grant Wood. Here is the painting and the creative piece I wrote based on it:

Grant_Wood_-_American_Gothic_-_Google_Art_Project

American Gothic

I remember marrying him.  We stood together in the country church, farmer’s son and farmer’s daughter, too poor for ought else–too much a part of the land anyway.  My family sitting on those hand-hewn, hard-backed pews, witnessing.

That night I didn’t utter a word or a cry.  Closing my eyes, I imagined I was lying in the distant fields of my home, daises tickling my face and hands and feet.

I worked hard, learning not to expect any praise for the clean floors or hearty food. My greatest joy, to get all of the chores finished in time to head for the fields, to hold the soil of our land in my hand, to feel its moisture and smell its mustiness.

He did praise me once.  After three daughters, who were mine to raise, to teach, to find husbands for, I bore him a son.  I sweat and strained and screamed no less, but somehow it was different, and he thanked me.  Then, my son was gone, no longer mine.  So soon he learned not to cry.  So soon he became a man.

Now, in that same country church, as my youngest daughter gives herself to a farmer too poor to leave and too much a part of the land anyway, I sit in a hand-hewn, hard-backed pew, witnessing.

**

I quite like this little character study, which went on to be published by the way, but more importantly, the piece inspired my developmental students for over a decade. Some of my students’ writing was published in our yearly literary magazine–one even winning a cash prize as  the top fiction piece in that year’s journal.

Another student picked a famous photograph of an American flag on a front porch and wrote an amazing creative non-fiction piece about the meaning of liberty. That student was attending our school under the GI Bill, having served during Operation Desert Storm. I’m telling you, he had a heck of a lot to say about liberty that the younger people in the class needed to hear.

Were they inspired to write or did the assignment just help them feel free to use their creativity? Did the painting give them something to write about, a story already there that they just fleshed out? It was more than likely a combination of things, but whatever it was, many of my students, developmental students, did their best writing when writing about art.

In recent years, the state where I teach has discouraged creative writing or the study of literature  in writing classes, especially in developmental classes. The trend is towards more “practical” writing, utilitarian, without flair or heart or life. Surprise! I am bucking that trend. I don’t use my art assignment any more, but my students engage with and write about music, film, theater, literature and art, and their writing is better for it. They are better for it.

In 1938 Winston Churchill, said, “The arts are essential to any complete national life. The State owes it to itself to sus­tain and encour­age them….Ill fares the race which fails to salute the arts with the rev­er­ence and delight which are their due.”

Maybe the State, as well as college administrators and curriculum developers, should listen to him.

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If you are, or were, an English composition teacher, do you have a writing prompt that you have used in class and would like to share like I did at the conference? If so, I would love if you would submit it to my literary magazine Teach. Write. 

In the magazine, I have a feature called “Write Your Own” where you do like I did and write your own creative piece using a prompt that you have once given your students. Accompany your piece with a brief explanation of the prompt or the purpose for the assignment.

I am also accepting general submissions of poetry, flash, short stories, and essays through March 1 for the spring edition. Click for complete submission guidelines. I look forward to reading your work!

Happy New Year!!!

And Merry New Semester!